THE MORNING PLUM:
One of the big political questions of the moment is this: Will GOP congressional leaders act to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation against President Trump’s threats to hamstring or kill it?
But in a way, this question, while important, doesn’t really get at the full story here, because its premise is that Republicans are mostly behaving passively toward the Mueller probe, clearing the way for Trump to act if he wishes. In reality, Republicans are, under cover of fake oversight, actively working to interfere in the investigation, on Trump’s behalf.
Here’s the latest on this front: The Post reports that House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte is planning to issue a subpoena for release of the memos that former FBI director James B. Comey has made of his private conversations with Trump, which have been turned over to Mueller.
Those conversations include the ones in which Trump demanded Comey’s loyalty and pressed him to drop the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, but there is a lot more in those memos we haven’t heard about. They are probably important evidence in Mueller’s efforts to establish whether Trump obstructed justice.
The Justice Department is already signaling reluctance to release these memos. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, has already told congressional Republicans that he wants more time to evaluate “the consequences” of giving them to Congress and worries about “publicizing them.”
Does anyone really believe Republicans are motivated by nothing but pure oversight impulses here? There are two other reasons they might want these memos. The first is to deliberately provoke Rosenstein into declining to provide them all — which could create a pretext to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress or even for Trump to fire him.
“The Deputy Attorney General should be aware that no matter what he gives to these members of Congress, it will never be enough,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me this morning. “The point is to create a conflict with the Justice Department that would give the president grounds to get rid of Mueller or Rosenstein. They don’t care what damage they do to our institutions to protect the president.” Separately, Schiff is pushing a new bill that would create disincentives for Trump to pardon people involved in the investigation.
The second reason for getting these memos — and let’s not pretend this isn’t perfectly plausible — would be to selectively leak from them, to mislead the public by, say, creating phony impressions of misconduct on Comey’s part that could provide more fodder for Trump and his allies to delegitimize the investigation, possibly manufacturing further pretext to hamstring or kill it. Let me remind you that Republicans already tried a similar caper with the bad-faith-saturated Nunes memo.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and law professor at the University of Michigan, told me that it could be “dangerous to interfere” in this manner with Mueller’s probe. If some info from the memos were to leak, she said, it could tip off other potential witnesses as to what Comey (himself a star witness) might have divulged to Mueller. They might shape their own testimony differently, McQuade said, once they “know the direction of an investigation and know what other witnesses are saying.”
A broader principle is at stake
There is a broader principle at stake here: We want such investigations to be generally insulated from political interference, to protect law enforcement’s integrity and independence. “This could have a chilling effect on Mueller’s team,” McQuade said. “If they know that every decision they make is going to be perhaps exposed to the public, it might change the way they do their work. We want them to be able to act independently, so they can make decisions based on objective facts and without worrying about someone twisting their actions in the eyes of the public.”
The complication here is that Congress, of course, is supposed to exercise oversight over law enforcement. But there comes a point at which this oversight, when exercised in obvious bad faith, crosses over into something else — that is, overt and deliberate political interference — and good-faith observers need to be able to say so. As former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller put it to me: “The president is working with members of Congress to actively thwart his own Justice Department, because he wants it to stop investigating him.”
By the way: Does anyone think this would be happening if House Speaker Paul D. Ryan didn’t give this effort his tacit blessing? And is there any point at which Ryan, who is now the subject of much discussion summing up how his career will be remembered, will step in and put a stop to it?
* FARMERS PUT TRUMP ON NOTICE: The New York Times reports that farmers are warning that they’ll be hit hard by Trump’s trade war with China and that this could make him a one-term president:
Soybeans are America’s second largest export to China, and that country’s proposed 25 percent duties on the crop would hit hardest in states like Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota — where there are highly competitive House races — as well as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, whose Senate contests may determine control of the chamber.
As GOP strategist Karl Rove tells the Times, a trade war “would limit Midwestern enthusiasm from our base.” But who can punch this message through Trump’s bubble?
* TRUMP ALLIES FEAR COHEN WILL FLIP: In the wake of the FBI raid on Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and home, Politico reports that Trump’s allies are increasingly worried that, faced with jail time, he’ll turn on Trump instead:
Since the raid, the president and his advisers have been singularly focused on the risk of a potential federal prosecution of Cohen, which they view as a much bigger existential threat to the presidency than … Comey …. Trump has regularly ranted to friends and advisers about the investigation into Cohen, according to two other people familiar with the conversations.
Cohen has been at the center of the shadiest of Trump family dealings for many, many years, so how much he knows is really anybody’s guess. But Trump clearly has some inkling.
* HANNITY CONSPIRACY THEORY IS DEBUNKED: Sean Hannity and other Trump allies have claimed Robert S. Mueller III was central to the wrongful FBI imprisonment of four men for a murder they didn’t commit. Nancy Gertner, the judge on the case, debunks the claim:
Based on the voluminous evidence submitted in the trial, and having written a 105-page decision … I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mueller, who worked in the United States attorney’s office in Boston from 1982 to 1988, including a brief stint as the acting head of the office, had no involvement in that case. He was never even mentioned.
This theory has also been pushed by luminaries such as Alan Dershowitz and Rush Limbaugh, the latest sign of how far #Foxlandia will go to shield Trump from accountability.
* TRUMP AND THE CLOUD OF POSSIBLE RUSSIAN BLACKMAIL: Comey says there’s a “non zero” chance Trump could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Meanwhile, Trump just pulled back from new Russian sanctions. E.J. Dionne Jr. locates the common thread:
Trump’s repeated flinching on Russian policy feeds suspicions as to why the Kremlin worked to get him elected … and whether Russia’s intelligence services have information to use against him … There is strange justice in the fact that Trump’s behavior played straight into … Comey’s blanket-the-media book tour. … Until “non-zero” becomes zero — or 100 percent — there is an obligation on the part of the media and government investigators to figure out what in the world is going on here.
There’s also Trump’s constant efforts to frustrate an accounting of what really happened in 2016 and his refusal to organize a serious response to future Russian electoral sabotage.
* TRUMP WOULD NEVER, EVER FIRE MUELLER OR ROSENSTEIN: The president said at a presser in Japan that it’s daft that anyone would ever suggest such a thing:
“They’ve been saying I’m going to get rid of them for the last three months, four months, five months, and they’re still here,” Trump said. “So we want to get the investigation over with, done with, put it behind us.”
Hmmm. Of course, Trump actually did seriously consider firing both of them at different times, and even unsuccessfully ordered it in Mueller’s case.
* AND IN TRUMP WHITE HOUSE, ‘PUBLIC HUMILIATION’ IS TYPICAL: After officials said “confusion” led U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to announce Russian sanctions that Trump undercut, she said, “I don’t get confused.” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond comments:
Public humiliation is a rite of passage for many top officials in the Trump administration. But when it was Nikki Haley’s turn this week, she fought back … It was a stunning retort in an administration where the typical response to being put down is to slink away quietly … Haley didn’t endure a presidential putdown … none of her colleagues have so publicly bristled at the egg on their faces.
Good for her, we suppose, but the very act of working in this administration is itself deeply self-debasing.